March 5, 2007 -- The tide appears to have turned for the Cessna Caravan 208/208B.
After being dogged for years with deicing problems – sometimes fatal ones, the single-engine, turboprop is on course to end this winter without an icing accident.
The Federal Aviation Administration is wrapping up comment on an Airworthiness Directive that incorporates pilot re-training, a new warning alert and additional de-icing equipment.
Just a year ago, it was a different story.
As the winter of 2005-06 turned into spring, federal regulators wanted to ground the Caravan, which is now heavily used as a cargo plane, during most winter flying conditions because of a series of accidents attributed to icy conditions. There were fatal accidents in Canada and in Russia. In the winter of 2004-05, there were nine accidents attributed to an ice build-up on the aircraft.
Instead, aircraft operators, represented by the Regional Air Cargo Carriers Association (RACCA), met with Cessna and the FAA to find a way to keep the planes in the air. The end result is the proposed Airworthiness Directive – comment closes on the measure on March 5. (Click here to read the AD and the comments.)
This winter to date, there has been one accident involving a Caravan and ice was not a factor, says Stan Bernstein, RACCA's executive director.
"I am very, very cautious," he says. "I will feel a lot better when May comes around and there haven't been any accidents."
The three sides met for several months last year to craft a training program for pilots on how to fly the aircraft in icing conditions. The FAA approved the 3-hour program, offered by Cessna, in time of this winter's flying. The class can be taken online. Cessna also offered it in a series of seminars across the country.
"Since the training has increased dramatically, the results appear to look better. Maybe the training was the proper route to go down." But Bernstein adds, "The jury is still out on that one."
Nearly 900 pilots have completed the course, which is now mandated in the Airworthiness Directive, which if enacted would take effect May 1.
The FAA estimates that there are 765 Caravans still in operation.
In addition to working with the pilots, the operators worked closely with their clients. "We have advised them that from time-to-time this airplane will have some restrictions on it that other planes will not," Bernstein says. "When there are heavy icing conditions out there, you might see a Beach 1900 go off, but the Caravan will stay on the ground. We have asked our crews to exercise the best judgment possible."
At RACCA's spring conference, Bernstein says the group will have a session to assess the effectiveness of the training program and to seek other suggestions to improve the Caravan.
The process to address the Caravan's icing problems "was a unique community effort to improve the safety of this plane. I have never known the FAA to willingly participate in this type of process," he notes. "In the past, they were only willing to rule on our ideas – yea or nay them."
The FAA and RACCA have already used this same process to address the safety problems on the Mitsubishi MU2, he adds. The MU2 Airworthiness Directive that was an outgrowth of that process is now already in place.
As the three-way Caravan meetings began, Cessna promised to do whatever it took to keep the plane in the air. The group developed a new piece of hardware for the plane – the low airspeed awareness system. "It is intended to give a heads up anytime the air speed falls below 120 knots," he says.
While supportive of the Airworthiness Directive draft, FedEx says the industry needs more time to install these new devices. It is asking that the compliance deadline be extended until Sept. 1.
FedEx has already installed the warning system on 59 of its 253 Cessna 208s. The installation time has averaged 30 hours per plane – or 8 more hours than the FAA estimated in the draft. The task is taking 12 more hours than Cessna's own estimate. Based on the current rate of installation, FedEx says it wouldn't complete the task until August.
The FAA also wants deicing boots installed on the plane's forward baggage pod. Bernstein notes that this was a requirement in an earlier directive.
FedEx says that it has already installed these deicing devices on half of its fleet.
In addition, FedEx notes that it is going beyond the directive and installing the Garmin multi-function displays with terrain avoidance awareness systems and a WSI satellite receiver to obtain "real time" weather information.
In its comments, Bernstein says RACCA is just seeking "fine tuning" of the language.
In one comment, Stephen McClure, of Bennington, Vt., questions the need for the low airspeed awareness system. "The aircraft already has such a system. It is called the airspeed indicator. The idea that you need another annunciator light or aural tone to remind you that your airspeed is decreasing in icing conditions is laughable," McClure writes.